Shabbat Ki Tetze: You Can’t Choose Whether, but You Can Choose How

The title of our parashat hashavua is ki tetze, “when you go out”. The Torah is continuing to give instruction for how we shall behave when we go out from our place, and a number of possibilities are offered here. What we come to realize is that there is a Jewish ethic for any act. These ethics are context-bound in their particulars, but we are able to discern what the theologian Louis Jacobs called the meta-message of the Torah: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. 

It’s interesting to note that the words ki tetze make it clear that one has no choice; one does “go out” into the world, out of one’s place. As an ethical teaching, this teaches several lessons:

1. We don’t have a choice but to go out: none of us are able to create a place to be which encompasses all of life – we have to leave it sometimes, as a bird leaves the nest, perforce, to find food.

2. When we do go out into the world from our place, we must carry the teachings – the ethics – with us. As it is said, “in your home and on your way”.

3. We also “go out” from our place in other ways: to truly live in the world, we are sometimes forced to leave our “comfort zone”, whether that be a comfortable assumption about the world, a friend or family member, or the story we are telling ourselves about our place in reality. 

I knew a Rabbi once who said that after twenty years of work with a particular congregation, “I finally had them where I wanted them. But then things kept right on changing!” As long as we live, we don’t get to choose whether we are going to “go out” from the comfortable assumptions and arrangements we have made – change does happen. Our only choice is to decide how we will greet the changes in our lives, how we will “go out” from our places.

As Jews we are expected to use our power to choose to maintain a certain ethic in the world, no matter where we find ourselves or what happens to us. The only sure support we have in a changing world is Torah. Keep studying, and keep seeking understanding – it’s very different from gathering facts!

Let these words from near the end of the parashah help you consider just how much more there is to discover in your understanding. The following verses are the basis for much Jewish business ethics, but there is one more teaching hidden within them:

 

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּכִיסְךָ, אֶבֶן וָאָבֶן:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small.

לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּבֵיתְךָ, אֵיפָה וְאֵיפָה:  גְּדוֹלָה, וּקְטַנָּה.

You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a great and a small.

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.

A perfect and just weight you must have; a perfect and just measure you must have; that your days may be long upon the land which your God gives you.

כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה:  כֹּל, עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל. 

For all that do such things, each one that does unrighteously, is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. (Devarim 25.13-16)

The basic ethic here is that you must acknowledge the correct weight (that is, value) in buying and selling – whether in your traveling “bag” (laptop?) or at home. Notice the strong words of condemnation for one who acts unethically in this way. One who cheats is an abomination – the word in Hebrew refers to one who is not righteous, but the opposite. This word is much stronger than that used for homosexuality, which is to’evah, a word that relates to a local cultural norm. 

There is so much more in a sophisticated approach to the Torah than you can know – and more support for your ethical journey than you can imagine. Don’t go out there without it.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good 5776

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Shabbat Shoftim: No Justice, No Peace

This parashat hashavua offers us so much of the guidance we need for our community relationships – the parashah begins with three perfect verses that cover so much ground.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

You must have judges and officers in all your gates which by the grace of G-d you have, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

You shall not show favoritism; you shall not respect individuals; you shall not take a gift – for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and twists the words of the righteous.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

Justice, justice you must follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which ‘ה your G-d gives you.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

Consider these few of the centuries of interpretations of these three verses, and in how many situations of your every day life they might guide your own words and acts:

1. “Judges” – in the plural. Do not dare to judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.  –  Pirke Avot 4:8 – Get a second opinion before you make a decision about someone’s character or behavior. Maybe you’re wrong.

2. “in all your gates” – The human body is a city with seven gates, that is, seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. We must learn to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what goes in and what comes out. – Sifte Kohen – The best advice I ever got was to “put a seven-second delay” on my mouth.

3.”Bribes blind the eyes of the wise” – As soon as [the judge] accepts a bribe from [a litigant], it is impossible for him not to be favorably disposed towards him. – Rashi – Bribes are not just money or other kinds of material gain. One can be bribed in a much more subtle way, without any malicious intent, as in this story from the Talmud:

Bribes twist the words of the righteous” – A person once brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “First Shearings” (one of the 24 gifts given to a kohen – Rabbi Ishmael was a kohen by lineage and could accept such gifts). Said Rabbi Ishmael to him: “Where are you from?” Said he: “From such-and-such a place.” Said Rabbi Ishmael: “And from there till here there was no kohen to whom you could give it?” Said he: “I have a matter of litigation, and I said to myself: as I’m coming here, I’ll give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept it from him, and said to him: “I am disqualified to serve as a judge in your case.” Instead, he sat two Torah scholars to judge his case. While still going to and fro [and overhearing the litigation], Rabbi Ishmael said to himself: If he wanted, he could argue thus and thus [to better present his case]. Said he: “A curse upon the takers of bribes! I did not accept anything from him. And if I would have accepted it, it would have been something that is mine by rights. Nevertheless, I am inclined in his favor. How much more so one who accepts a bribe! – Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 105b

4. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice — both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just. – Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa

5. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. – Pirke Avot 1:18 – Law, truth and peace; the three are one and the same: if the law is upheld, there is truth and there is peace. – Talmud Yerushalmi, Taanit 4:2

Our third verse concludes with the warning that only when justice is upheld with righteousness can we expect to “inherit the land”. That land is the place of your life and that of your family and community. The Torah is telling us that aren’t enough security systems and armies in the world to protect us from the consequences of our unethical choices. Unless we establish real justice, for all, in the land of the living, none of us will feel secure upon it.

What would our lives be like if we truly believed that the best insurance for a safe and happy life was bought by ethical insurance, and not just the homeowner’s or renter’s policy you wouldn’t dream of not having?

Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing, Iran and Others

Our parashat hashavua, called Re’eh, urges us, “look!”. The Torah relates that Moshe our leader is exhorting our ancestors to take a moment to stop and really see in a deeper sense. That is, he is telling us to realize something essential about our ability to understand the implications of what we see – and how we respond.

This issue of seeing is vitally significant. After all, our salvation depended upon Moshe’s ability to see a burning bush in the wilderness, many years before. As the mystics point out, if Moshe had not stopped long enough to notice that the bush was burning but was not being consumed by the fire, he would not have heard G-d’s call.

If you stop and see something you have never seen before, you are, in that moment, ready to listen for that which you have never heard before.

And if you do not stop, do not see what is really happening, you cannot hear and obey the command set before you. 

Snap judgments based on a quick glance will not get you there. Partially seeing will only give you a garbled, incorrect hearing of what you are called upon to do. And the stakes are as high as can be:

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.

Look, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:

אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.

blessing, if you listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, which I command you today;

וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם.

and curse, if you will not listen and obey the commands of ‘ה your G-d, but turn aside from the way you are commanded this day to follow, and go after other gods, which you do not even really know. (Devarim 11.26-28)

Moshe tells us here that we do have the power to choose between blessing and curse, and the way to do so is by seeing carefully, and therefore opening your eyes and ears – and heart – to the possibility of being able to hear accurately, and obey correctly.

It is easier to follow one’s first impression, more comfortable to come to one’s conclusion quickly, to leave the wilderness wandering of indecision. But the Jewish understanding of wisdom is that it is only found in looking again and deeper, staying open to what we have not yet seen – and perhaps has never been seen in the world before.

I do not often share political comments in this religious teaching, but it is also true that I am guided by the mystical insight that All is One – there is no such thing as “just politics” or “just religion”. All our best and highest acts in any sphere of life are simply our human striving to perceive G-d’s will and do it (even if we don’t use that word, debased by so many, and prefer to say “seeking to move with the flow of the universe” or “creating a sense of wholeness with the highest”). But our religious teachings are either true everywhere in our lives or they are not true teachings. 

So with that prelude I offer you this thought: our people, no matter where we live in the world, are always concerned for the fate of our State of Israel. We do not agree on how best American Jews should express their support. Shir Tikvah has stood for respectful dialogue, makhloket l’shem shamayim, when we discuss these things that we care about most. It is because I believe in looking more deeply – and arguing less than listening – and keeping my heart and mind open to learn more, that I am coming out in support of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as “the Iran deal”). This is why:

– It is easy to quickly see and agree with other Jews that it is too dangerous, without stopping to hear that the sanctions regime is unravelling anyway and if we do not have this deal, we are left with nothing in its place. We cannot go back to the status quo ante.

– It is easy to see the public threats Iran makes against Israel, without hearing the reports (this link from the Jewish Forward) from Iran and elsewhere that describe a much more nuanced reality.

– It is hard to read the entire text of the agreement, and then read Torah and all the commentaries, and then listen to both sides, and consult with your teachers and those who are wise, and finally come to a carefully considered decision. It is much easier to fall back into the Jewish defensive position that the world is against us and no one understands us or cares about us – but it may well be that our best way forward to is thank the President for this good start toward a safer world, and use the opening to push for the kind of cultural contacts and economic connections that will make it easier to pressure the Iran regime in the direction of becoming a good neighbor, or at least a less bad one. We have no proof that isolating a regime works, and if we look, we will see plenty of examples in world history of where it has not worked. Those who do not learn from history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.

I offer you this final thought from Jewish mysticism about the nature of good and evil as we look for the blessing and the curse regarding Iran and so many other significant decisions our government makes on our behalf, and of course, those we ourselves are called upon to make:

When Moshe says Re’eh, “see”, to the people of Israel, he is inviting them to see the true nature of evil – that it is nothing more than a distortion of Divine good. When we see it for what it really is, we have the ability to transform it into the good that it essentially is. 

May it be that our representatives have seen a path toward that which is good, and may we demand of them nothing less than a constant, careful looking, and listening, beyond the surface and the already-known, for the sake of peace in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout our precious, precious world. 

Shabbat Ekev: Seeing What Is Being Born

איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד – Ayzehu hakham? HaRo’eh et haNolad, “who is wise? One who sees what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9) So few of us, then, can think of ourselves as wise. We try in so many ways to affect our future, would give anything to know our future, to affect it in just the way we wish, or at least to know what will happen at times of great desire or fear. But we can’t even clearly understand all the results of our own actions.

Our parashat hashavua is called Ekev, meaning “because of” or “as a result of”; literally “on the heels of”. The parashah seems to be offering us a reassuring picture of our future: it begins with a description of the good that will follow because we have responded to the summons of the Shema to listen, to obey, to carry out the mitzvot. Later on in the parashah, we get the specific ethical forecast (later this section will be excerpted from the Torah to become part of the Shema section of our siddur):

“The rain will fall in season, the former rain and the latter, and you will be able to harvest your grain, your wine and your oil. There will be grass in the fields for the animals, and you will eat enough to be satisfied. Be careful not to misunderstand this, turning toward other sources of blessing, for then G-d’s anger will be kindled and the heavens will be sealed up – there will be no rain and no harvest, and you will perish quickly from what was a good land.” (Devarim 11.14-17)

It is in the last few generations that we have seen this description actually become true, ironically enough after a period in which modern humans began to scoff at language such as this. Ha! we said. Ethics don’t affect the rainfall or the harvest – look at how an unethical person may still be a successful one.

Our mistake was in assuming our own frame of reference for this warning, instead of understand the Biblical proportions. After a century of misunderstanding the planet and its needs, turning toward materialism and the profit motive as sources of blessing, we are, after all, experiencing precisely this: the heavens are sealed when they should be open, and rain falls not in its season, and we begin to see the consequences in harvests of hunger, and cynicism, and fear.

None of us could understand that the forces of progress and science were anything other than a blessing, and they do carry blessings – none of us could see what other forces were also being set in motion. The same is true of capitalism, or democracy, or introducing rabbits into Australia, or a random kind gesture to a stranger. We are not wise, and it is hard to see what is being born in the moment.

But after enough experience, and some learning from those who came before us, perhaps we can begin to develop the habit of taking for granted that something might be in the offing that we cannot see. Perhaps we might gain the humility of ceasing to assume that we already know the future. And then we will understand the parashah’s beginning: וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן – v’hayah ekev tishme’un, “And it will be because you listened.”